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Sat Pal Khattar founder of KhattarWong, one of the largest law firms in Singapore was awarded the Padma Sri by the Indian Government on Republic Day. He is presently the Chairman of Khattar Holding with investments in Singapore, India and the UK.
He talks to Bar & Bench about his entprenuerial beginnings with KhattarWong, retiring from law practice in 2000 and shifting gears to running a business enterprise.
Bar & Bench: Your initial years of growing up? Why did you move from India to Singapore?
Sat Pal Khattar: I was born in Behra, India (now part of Pakistan) in November 1942. During partition we ended up in a Refugee Camp in Ambala and then to Delhi for about 18 months before we left to join my father in Singapore in February 1949. Times were challenging, but I was quite young and remember little of the difficulties we faced. At the age of 6, I was in Singapore. Did both my primary and secondary education in Singapore and finished my ‘O’ Levels in 1959. I then joined my father’s sports goods business; did ‘A’ Levels on a part-time basis and entered the Law Faculty in National University of Singapore in 1962. I finished my Honours degree in Law in 1966; joined the Government Legal Service late that year and worked as Deputy Public Prosecutor and Senior Legal Adviser to the Inland Revenue Department until June 1974.
Bar & Bench: Why did you pursue law? What inspired you and how were your initial years after law school?
Sat Pal Khattar: Law was not a burning passion. It happened to be the faculty that was prepared to take me in on rather mediocre results. Once I started to study, law interest increased in the subjects and law became a passion. I did not have any hiatus between law school and Government service, except for a few months, the journey was almost simultaneous.
Bar & Bench: Establishing KhattarWong – Talk us through your experience.
Sat Pal Khattar: I set up KhattarWong with the intention of running a specialized boutique practice. It grew quickly into an all service law firm and became one of the largest law practices in Singapore with over 150 lawyers. There were many challenges in building up a law practice. The normal challenges of growing the practice were matched by the need for outstanding talent and meeting their aspirations both in professional and monetary expectations. There were no issues ever that I was part of a minority community. Singapore has always recognized talent bereft of race or colour. The firm’s clients were from all sectors; so were the lawyers. Building a law firm from scratch is always challenging and exerting. You have to have long-term goals and make sacrifices to get there. You cannot hoard a large part of the equity if you want to grow the partnership. Something has to give. In Singapore we have a limited market and scope as compared to India. I have always told my friends in India that India needs 20 law firms of over 300 lawyers each. It is getting there. But breath of vision is very much needed.
Bar & Bench: Why did you retire from active law practice?
Sat Pal Khattar: When I reached 60, I and my other senior partner decided that we should step down. He left first as he was older. Another senior partner had become a judge. I stayed on for a few years more, but eventually was able to persuade my colleagues that I too be allowed to step down. It is a myth that the law firm if properly structured and managed will disintegrate if the founding partners leave.
Bar & Bench: How different is business life from that of running a law firm?
Sat Pal Khattar: Completely different. You are, as senior partner, looking for work; for new clients; settling disputes administering the firm with its myriad challenges on an ongoing basis. In an investment company, you are looking at projects and businesses to invest in; looking at new kinds of investments; monitoring your investments and at the appropriate time looking to and planning exits and ways to monetize your investments.
Bar & Bench: What do you think about the Indian legal market?
Sat Pal Khattar: The Indian Legal Market has huge scope. It would have to open up to the world. India cannot keep looking inwards. India has much talent and in that context the ability to take on anyone from the West and even improve the quality. It may take a bit of time, but the eventual direction of having to open up is given. Singapore has chosen to open up in stages and this has worked well. With so much talent in India there is no reason why it would be otherwise in India.
My assessment of the excellent quality of Indian expertise at the top is based on my personal experience. Even at the middle level the quality is tremendous at the advocacy level and at the solicitor’s level. Personal references are invidious as I have too many friends in India at various levels.
Bar & Bench: You seem to have a strong interest in India and related investments.
Sat Pal Khattar: India has offered us many opportunities to invest in India. We do not talk about individual investments. On the whole we have derived good returns. We have had our fair share of lemons, but that is inevitable.
Bar & Bench: You are also actively involved in philanthropy – Talk us about the impact that it has created.
Sat Pal Khattar: Philanthropy must be an integral part of one’s philosophy. You must find ways and means of giving back to the society that gave you the opportunity to derive economic success. Whether in Singapore or India we see this as an ongoing duty to do what we can.